Antarctic Life Is Weirder Than You’d Think

A new Antarctic biodiversity study reveals the region is more diverse and biologically interesting than previously thought.

Recent investigations have shown the continent and surrounding ocean are rich in species, which are also very highly diversified into a variety of distinct ecological regions that differ greatly from each other. Says study leader Professor Steven Chown of the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University:

“Most people think of the continent as a vast, icy waste, and the sea as uniformly populated by whales, seals, and penguins. But that’s simply not true.

There’s much biodiversity on land, especially among the microorganisms, such as bacteria, and the seafloor is very rich in larger unusual species, such as sea spiders and isopods (the marine equivalents of slaters or wood lice). More than 8,000 species are known from the marine environment.”

Ceridwen Fraser, a coauthor of the review from the Australian National University says:

“Each area of the Antarctic also has very different groupings of species; while initially they may look the same, they are actually very different.”

Diverse Reasons For Biodiversity

The team also notes several unusual ways in which patterns of biodiversity are produced in the region.

A Wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) on South Georgia by Brocken Inaglory. CC BY-SA 3.0

Geothermal, heated areas, such as volcanoes, have played an important role as refuges from icy, glacial conditions on land. At sea, wind has an especially significant effect on diversity. Windier areas have more seabird species.

“Increasing wind speeds, associated with the ozone hole, have, quite unusually, improved conditions for wandering albatrosses, reducing their travel time and enabling them to become much heavier as adults,” says Chown.

Professor Craig Cary, coauthor from the University of Waikato in New Zealand, adds:

“Antarctica and the Southern Ocean have much more biodiversity, structured in more interesting ways than ever previously thought. Sub-glacial microorganismal life provides an excellent example of a surprising recent discovery.”

Antarctic Conservation

Chown says the team also made a brief assessment of the conservation status of biodiversity in the region.

“We found that in some cases conservation measures are excellent, such as in the case of the prevention of invasive alien species,” says Chown.

Antarctic krill
“Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba)” by Uwe Kils CC BY-SA 3.0

For others, work by the Antarctic Treaty Parties is still required. For example, the area covered by special protection on land (the equivalent of national parks), and by marine protected areas at sea, is still too small, when measured by global targets such as those of the Strategic Plan on Biodiversity 2011-2020.

The team drew particular attention to the need for comprehensive protection of the Ross Sea. Says coauthor Professor Andrew Clarke of the British Antarctic Survey:

“This is one of the planet’s last, relatively intact, large marine ecosystems. It is unusual in this respect, and thus provides a suite of globally significant conservation benefits and scientific insights.”

The review is part of a larger, global effort to further understand the biodiversity of the Antarctic region, its conservation needs, and the science that will be needed to progress understanding in the area.

Steven L. Chown, Andrew Clarke, Ceridwen I. Fraser, S. Craig Cary, Katherine L. Moon & Melodie A. McGeoch
The changing form of Antarctic biodiversity
Nature 522, 431–438 (25 June 2015) doi:10.1038/nature14505

Photo: “Icefishuk”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0